If you have ever said “That wasn’t my intention…” to a person who is BIPOC - this is for you.
White people, we need to take the word “intent” out of our vocabulary. I know we all mean well. But that is exactly the problem. What’s the saying, the road to hell is paved with good intentions? Well, the road to upholding racism, inequity, and white supremacy is most certainly paved with white people’s good intentions. (Listen to Nice White Parents.)
Refer to your conversations with any white person claiming not to be racist, note all the “Black Lives Matter” statements with no action backing them, or see all the colonial statues coming down with no policy change. What we are saying, fellow white folks, when we lean on our good intentions is that we don’t really care about the follow-through; we are comfortable with our performative anti-racism, and we want accolades for being “good” white people.
But, we are not good white people.
We are performative white people who want to be accepted and tend to go with what is considered “cool” at the moment in society. We are very comfortable in our privilege, access, and history of power. When we talk about intent, we are really showing that we have not thought deeply about something, or considered the actual impact on someone we are with. We are showing our lack of understanding, learning, knowledge, and interest in considering anything of any other perspective. White folks, you know what we are really good at? We are really good at living in our privilege and assuming all others will meet us there and/or have the same experience. We are not good at thinking about anything from any other perspective. We do not:
Think about what circumstances allowed our experience to be so great for us
Consider if everyone has access to the same things/situations
Take time to educate ourselves on the different experiences BIPOC folks in our country have
Remember that the white, male, cis-gender, straight, middle-class experience dominates our policies, access, structures, lives, etc
Acknowledge that just because something steeped in our racist history is good for us, it might not be for others.
I know I lost some of you on that last one. Because now you want to point to it and say that you do not participate in things that are steeped in our racist history. I am here to tell you: there is literally nothing you can do that is not steeped in our racist history. That is the fact of American history. (See Stamped from the Beginning). And you cannot escape history in your everyday life. What we experience on a daily basis is brought to us by what has happened before us. No, you, personally, were not a slave owner. But white folks would not have the access to the economy we do without the oppression of Black bodies used to build our country (listen to/read the 1619 Project). I can hear you saying “but I grew up poor!” That may be, but you were still white. Your experience with poverty and money is still completely different than that of a Black person experiencing poverty. Point being, there is nothing in American culture you can disentangle from racism.
Even our thought processes, white friends. We don’t think through those things listed above because we don’t have to. Because the white (and male, cis-gender, straight, middle-class) experience dominates our policies, access, structures, lives, etc. And, we get to live in this bubble, by default. BUT we can choose to burst that bubble.
The thing is, the bubble is limiting; it keeps BIPOC people out while allowing white people to remain in our comfort. It does not allow the full depth of society (and people) to engage and flourish. It keeps us stunted.
How does it keep us stunted? Here are a couple of simplified examples:
Solving Problems: Example after example shows us that we come to more holistic, creative, full solutions when we engage a myriad of opinions in the solution building. Whether funding school programs, feeding and housing folks, or addressing violence, centering and following people who are most affected by the solution matters. But that’s jargony and boring. So example #2:
Food: Think about the food you eat. What if you could only eat white-people food? Like corn dogs, potatoes, hamburger-helper. Now think of all the foods and flavors you’d be missing, such as tacos, BBQ, fried chicken, any spice, you know… flavor! (To be fair, “white” food isn’t a thing, really…. Even Columbus (the epitome of white power, privilege, and racism) was looking for spices to spice up white-people food.)
Let’s bring it home a bit more. Think about how easily white folks get our feelings hurt. When we are called out on something we’ve said/done we immediately retort with “but what I meant was” or “I was just trying to be helpful” or… fill in the blank with something that centers our white feelings. We immediately center ourselves. But here’s the thing, it’s not about us! Let me say that again: our intent is bullshit because IT IS NOT ABOUT WHITE PEOPLE. By once again centering ourselves, we are telling the person who called us out on our bullshit intent that their lived experience/knowledge is less valid than our feelings. No one knows better what a black person experiences than a black person. Period.
The only other group of people I know to get away with behavior like this is small children. Kids are wired to center themselves and their experiences in all things. When my child tells me the animal we are looking at is a cat but indeed we are looking at a dog, I correct him. When he argues about that fact for 10 minutes, I give zero fucks what he thinks on the subject anymore. Any further conversation about this between us is simply power play and will get us exactly nowhere. We have both dug in. Furthering the argument will just irritate both of us. This is what it is like when a BIPOC person takes the time, energy, and emotional capacity to explain something to a white person. (White folks are the child, to be clear.)
But what if we stepped back and accepted that I (the adult) have more experience, knowledge, and understanding on this subject? This would provide an opportunity for him to learn. Learn new information, learn how to listen to others, and even potentially how to ask meaningful clarifying questions if he is confused or not understanding what I’m saying. And I will feel heard and have contributed to his future functioning in society.
White folks, we have gotten to live in our feelings long enough. We no longer have rights to that. Think your shit through. Accept when someone (especially a BIPOC person) tells you what you did was wrong, landed wrong, or caused harm. Say “thank you! Thank you for giving up your time and emotional space to school me. I have now learned better, so I will do better.” It’s really that simple. Be concerned with impact. Fuck intent. (Besides, impact leaves a longer legacy. And we, white folks, are all about our legacy.)